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What Are Russians Protesting About?

Recent demonstrations in Russia have not been led by a particular group or movement with grand political designs. Instead, protesters in Arkhangelsk – much like those in Yekaterinburg and even in Moscow – are simply people fighting for their government, finally, to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

MOSCOW – Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, now Chair of Russia’s Accounts Chamber, has warned that the country risks an “explosion” of protests caused by declining living standards and widespread poverty. He is wrong.

Kudrin is widely viewed as a standard-bearer for the cadre of liberal technocrats working within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illiberal system, and his words carry significant weight among liberal-minded observers. But, in assessing today’s social unrest in Russia, Kudrin is confusing economic frustration with something much more fundamental: the struggle for dignity.

Of course, Russians do have serious economic grievances. The decline in real household income – which Kudrin cited as a major contributor to public frustration – has been consistent since 2014, when Putin made the costly decision illegally to annex Crimea from Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, private consumption has been weak. And last year, when the government implemented drastic pension reforms – which, among other things, raised the retirement age by five years – popular protests were formidable enough to force Putin not only to defend the policy publicly, but also to make some concessions.

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